DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria said Monday that it will work with international organizations to ensure that all children in the country, even those in rebel-held areas, will be vaccinated against polio following an outbreak of the crippling and highly communicable disease.
The World Health Organization last week confirmed 10 cases of polio among babies and toddlers in northeastern Syria. The U.N. health agency warned that the outbreak — the first in 14 years in the country — risks spreading among an estimated half-million Syrian children who haven't been immunized because of the civil war.
"We intend to vaccinate each Syrian child regardless of the area they are present in, whether it is a hotspot or a place where the Syrian Arab Army is present," deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad said. "We promise that we will give opportunity to humanitarian organizations to reach every Syrian child."
Mekdad did not specify when the immunization campaign would begin, or how those administering the vaccinations would reach rebel-held areas. Syria announced last month that it had launched a vaccination campaign, while UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said his organization and the WHO planned to immunize 2.4 million children throughout Syria. Access to all areas of the country, however, remains a problem.
Aid groups have called for cease-fires to allow immunization campaigns to reach zones affected by fighting. There is some precedent: Syria's warring parties have struck temporary truces before to allow civilians to flee and aid to enter some areas. International chemical weapons inspectors also have managed to cross front lines.
The need to address the polio threat is urgent, health officials say. The virus usually infects children in unsanitary conditions through consuming food or drink contaminated with feces. It attacks the nerves and can kill or paralyze, spreading widely and unnoticed before it starts crippling children.
With huge numbers of Syrians still fleeing the violence to seek safety abroad, the risk of an outbreak in countries that have absorbed the bulk of refugees — Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey — is high. Speaking to reporters in Damascus, Mekdad, the deputy foreign minister, also defended the government against allegations that its forces were blockading rebel-held areas. He said there had been attempts to extend food and supplies to civilians in certain districts and towns under rebel control.
Mekdad also noted that rebels were blockading towns considered loyal to the government, including the two predominantly Shiite Muslim villages of Nubul and Zahra in the northern province of Aleppo. While the rebel siege of Nubul and Zahar has strategic value, it also reflects the sectarian divide of the conflict. The rebellion is dominated by Syria's Sunni majority, while the government and security forces are packed with members of President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The Christian minority has largely either stayed on the sidelines, or stood with the government.
The war has stirred up tensions between Sunnis and Shiites across the region, and acted as a magnet for fighters of both sects. Sunnis from across the Arab world have flocked to Syria to join the rebellion. Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite militants have taken up arms alongside government troops.
Regional Shiite power Iran, meanwhile, has provided financial and military support for its longtime Damascus ally. Last year, the chief commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, said the unit had high-level advisers in Syria but denied it has fighters there. More recently, however, analysts say that Iranian troops and commanders have taken on a more direct role in the conflict.
On Monday, Iran's semiofficial Mehr news agency said a commander in the Guard had been killed in Syria. It said Mohammad Jamali was killed by "terrorists" a few days ago but did not provide details. It said his funeral will be held in Kerman in southeastern Iran on Tuesday.
Also Monday, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden truck in the village of Sabityeh near the central city of Homs, killing at least six people, state media reported. Footage aired on state television showed panicked residents rushing to ambulances carrying wounded children.
No group claimed responsibility for the blast, but such bombings are the hallmark of al-Qaida-linked groups who have joined Syrian rebels battling to overthrow Assad's rule.
Hadid reported from Beirut.